Photo courtesy of Netflix
There’s basketball films out there, such as “He Got Game,” “Hoop Dreams,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and yes, even “Space Jam.” Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, “High Flying Bird” is not an average basketball film; it’s a revolutionary swan song dedicated to the hard-working players of the NBA in the modern day.
Similar to modern Soderbergh films, which have been a constant stream of caper comedies and complex heists, this one revolves around a sort of coup d’etat of the capitalist wet dream that is the National Basketball Association.
André Holland of “Moonlight” fame plays Ray Burke, a quick-witted sports agent to newly drafted player Erick Scott, played by Melvin Gregg.
The setting is New York City during the NBA lockout of 2011, an unprecedented hold on basketball, lasting a record-breaking 161 days. Tensions are high, as all players are unable to play and are unable to be paid, agents included. When the lockout occured in reality, it came down to contracts with the association and TV networks, but players were fighting for higher pay as well.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, known for “Moonlight,” writes the perfect script for Soderbergh’s in-depth and equally patient style. The writing is patient, technical and realistic. The film is a powerhouse in every way, except for one huge factor: cinematography. Soderbergh, helming the camera and being his own director of photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews.
Most noticeably, Soderbergh shoots the entire film on an iPhone combined with a series of gimbals, steadicams and small dollies. The movement of the camera is flawless, and the framing is even more incredible, with the exception of the look the iPhone provides. The whole film is seen through a wide-angle lens that feels incredibly disorienting and unnecessary for the film.
Soderbergh is considered a pioneer with movie technology, but this was completely unnecessary, particularly considering that the film has absolutely no basketball or quick movement in it whatsoever. His choice of camera is meant to evoke a documentary feel, including brief interviews with actual NBA players intercut into the film itself.
The film takes a considerable amount of time getting to its main point of being anti-capitalist, and picking up heavy themes of black resistance within the association, but when it does, it’s treated in the most perfect way. It’s not an all-out showboat; it’s a cold, restrained factor, and a truth that athletes themselves need to face.
The film drags slightly around the middle, but is held up incredibly well with the talents of the main cast, as well as Zazie Beetz playing Sam, Ray Burke’s assistant.
The film displays the complex perspectives of various people involved in the league outside of the management and team owners: it highlights the perspectives of the sports mothers, assistants, players and those who didn’t make it into the league.
Although I have personal gripes with the film itself, it does deliver an important message that people are afraid to make: all power to all the people. The players are the ones who deserve the profits. Sitting back and watching the higher-ups float on the backs of the players who are actually making the game worth watching. No one wants to watch elderly white team owners trudge their out-of-shape bodies up and down the court only to miss a layup. We watch the most incredible athletes in the world pushing their bodies and minds to the limit to give the world an exciting experience and to keep basketball alive.